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Chronicle AM -- March 14, 2014

No legalization for Maryland this year, the ASA national conference is coming soon, Utah (!) passes a package of policing reform bills, welfare drug testing goes down in flames in Indiana, the Swiss ponder cannabis clubs, and more. Let's get to it:

A bill before Utah's governor would begin to rein in SWAT in the Beehive State. Only Maryland has done something similar.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Activists Plan Slew of Local Reform Initiatives. Marijuana reform activists are planning "a tsunami move in November 2014," with plans to put initiatives aimed at legalizing or decriminalizing possession, use or transfer of small amounts of marijuana on private property by persons 21 or older on the local ballot in at least eight towns and cities, and perhaps a dozen more. The Safe Michigan Coalition, the folks behind successful initiatives in Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson last year, are also behind this effort.

NORML PAC Endorses Tommy Wells for DC Mayor. NORML PAC, the campaign and lobbying arm of NORML, announced today that it is endorsing Councilman Tommy Wells for mayor of Washington, DC. "Councilman Wells is a passionate crusader for the cause of marijuana law reform," stated NORML PAC manager Erik Altieri, "Wells showed his skill and acumen for the issue when he championed the District's marijuana decriminalization measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the DC City Council just this month. The District of Columbia would greatly benefit from having his compassion, knowledge, and strong leadership in the mayor's office. Under a Tommy Wells administration, DC will continue to roll back its failed prohibition on marijuana and move towards a system of legalization and regulation."

Maryland Legalization Bill Dies, But Decriminalization Bill Still Lives. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in Maryland, House Bill 880 from Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore), died for lack of support in committee yesterday, but a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 364, filed by Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Montgomery) passed the Senate and is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Some Marijuana Convictions Can Be Thrown Out. Some people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana can ask for those convictions to be thrown out under the law that legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, the state's second-highest court ruled Thursday. The Colorado Court of Appeals said people whose cases were under appeal when Amendment 64 on recreational marijuana took effect in December 2012 are eligible to have their convictions reversed. The case is Colorado v. Brandi Jessica Russell.

Medical Marijuana

ASA National Conference in Washington, DC, April 5-7. The country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), formally announced today its second annual Unity Conference, "Navigating Medical Cannabis in the Mainstream," to be held in Washington, DC on April 5-7, 2014. The conference will highlight medical and legal experts, policymakers, and a wide array of workshops and panels focusing on scientific research, strategic planning, and skills building. Click on the links for more details.

Washington Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Dies. A legislative effort to roll Washington's medical marijuana program into its I-502 legal marijuana system has died at the last minute after House Republicans tried to use it to divert a share of marijuana tax revenue to cities and counties. Senate Bill 5887 sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) said the bill was doomed by "immovable positions" even after a last-minute push by the governor. The bill would have required existing dispensaries to either get legal under I-502 or close, would have ended collective gardens, and would have reduced the amount of marijuana patients could possess and the number of plants they could grow.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Legislature. A bill that would allow children with epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil has passed the legislature and now heads for the governor's desk. House Bill 105 won final approval in the House Thursday.

Drug Testing

Pre-Job Offer Drug Tests Violate ADA, Federal Court Rules. Pre-offer drug tests to determine the use of both legal and illegal drugs violates the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) prohibition on pre-offer medical inquiries, a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled last week. The ADA contains an exception for tests solely "to determine the illegal use of drugs," but the court held that the urine drug screens qualified as medical exams because they tested not just for drugs but also for other medical purposes. The case is EEOC v. Grane Healthcare Co. and Ebensburg Care Center, LLC, d/b/a Cambria Care Center.

Indiana Welfare Drug Testing Bill Dies on Ties Vote in Senate. A bill to drug test welfare recipients suspected of using drugs died last night on a dramatic tie vote in the Senate. Senate Bill 1351 had already passed the House by a margin of 81-17, but Senate opponent said the measure unfairly targeted poor people and that other states that have adopted such programs have found they were not cost effective.

Law Enforcement

Utah Legislature Passes Policing Reform Bills. Three bills to impose some controls on law enforcement have been sent to the governor's desk in Utah. House Bill 70 originally would have limited the use of "dynamic entry" search warrants to situations involving violent crime, but was watered down. It still, however, imposes some restrictions on such searches. Senate Bill 185 would require police agencies with SWAT teams to report on why and how often they are used. Only Maryland has approved a similar law. And House Bill 185 requires police to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone, including bulk data collection through technologies like Stingray.

Drugged Driving

Drugged Driving Bill Passes Vermont House. A bill that makes it easier for police to charge drivers with drugged driving passed the House Thursday. House Bill 501 changes existing law to use the same definition of "under the influence"of drugs as has been established for alcohol. Under current law, drugged driving can only be proven if someone drives unsafely, but the proposed law would change that to enable a conviction "when the person is under the influence of any other drug or under the combined influence of alcohol and any other drug." The state Supreme Court has held that any drug presence constitutes "under the influence." The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

Swiss Cities Consider Backing Cannabis Clubs. Municipal governments in at least five Swiss cities are considering plans to allow "cannabis clubs" or user associations. Local governments in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich are contemplating the move, with Geneva taking the lead. A working group will present a final proposal to authorities in June, but the move would require changes in federal law.

British Deaths From New Synthetics "Inflated," Former Drug Advisors Say. The National Program on Substance Abuse Deaths (NSPAD) reported 68 deaths in 2012 from the use of "legal highs" or new synthetic drugs, but two former government drug advisors say that figure includes many deaths from substances that "are already illegal, not new, and/or not psychoactive." Professor David Nutt and Dr. Les King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs said only 11 of the 68 deaths actually occurred with new synthetics. "What is certain is that if the current government review of legal highs is to be taken seriously and lead to health improvements then there must be a proper definition of terms and improved data collection," they said. "Moreover the data must be properly and independently audited so the effects of any change in the law can be properly evaluated."

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Federal Judge Throws Out Florida Welfare Drug Test Law

In a ruling out of Orlando Tuesday, US District Court Judge Mary Scriven permanently halted enforcement of Florida's suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients. The 2011 law had been in abeyance since a preliminary injunction was issued against it earlier.

"There is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use," Scriven wrote in her opinion in Lebron v. Florida Department of Children and Families. She found that "there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied."

The law required anyone applying for welfare benefits to undergo a drug test without any particularized suspicion that he or she was using drugs. The federal courts have been loath to okay suspicionless drug testing, with a few notable exceptions for workers in public safety positions and some school kids.

Luis Lebron, the plaintiff in the case, who is also the sole caretaker of his disabled mother, was a 35-year-old full-time student at the University of Central Florida when he applied for temporary assistance in July 2011, to support his then 4-year-old son. When informed that he would be subjected to a humiliating and invasive search without cause or suspicion, Lebron refused to waive his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure by submitting to the newly-required drug test.

"I'm really pleased with the court's decision," said Lebron. "This confirms what I believed all along -- that what the government was asking people like me and my family to do was wrong. I'm proud that standing up against that is going to make a difference for other families like mine."

"This is a victory not just for Luis and his family, but for all Floridians who would have been forced to submit to invasive and humiliating searches of their bodily fluids just because they need temporary help making ends meet," stated Maria Kayanan, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida and lead attorney on the case. "In reconfirming that the Fourth Amendment protects all of us, regardless of wealth or status, Judge Scriven's decision soundly rejects the notion that the government can treat an entire class of Floridians like suspected criminals simply for being poor. We are thrilled to ring in the New Year with the Court's opinion."

"The Court today affirmed that the 4th Amendment protects everyone, including those who need temporary assistance from the government," stated Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and co-counsel with the ACLU. "Requiring suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients is a slippery slope toward requiring drug testing for the receipt of any kind of government benefit, including social security, farm subsidies, and student scholarships. A clear line must be drawn, and the court did so today."

Gov. Rick Scott (R) said he would appeal the decision.

Orlando, FL
United States

Judge Strikes Down Florida Welfare Drug Test Law

Happy holidays, indeed! First Uruguayan President Mujica give us a Christmas present by signing his country's law legalizing marijuana commerce (no surprise there, really), and now, a federal judge throws invites us to welcome the new year with a ruling throwing out Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) welfare drug testing law.

Curses, foiled again...
In a ruling out of Orlando today, US District Court Judge Mary Scriven permanently halted enforcement of the law, agreeing with an earlier court finding that "there is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use...."

The law required anyone applying for welfare benefits to undergo a drug test without any particularized suspicion that he or she was using drugs. The federal courts have been loath to okay suspicionless drug testing, with a few notable exceptions for workers in public safety positions and some school kids.

The case is Lebron v. Florida Department of Children and Families. We'll have more on it later.

Oh, and the never-say-die Gov. Scott says he will appeal.

Location: 
Orlando, FL
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 13, 2013

It looks like Washington state medical marijuana patients will continue to be able to grow their own, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes wants to welcome pot tourists, the Michigan Senate takes aim at welfare drug users, Indian Maoists are profiting from prohibition, and more. Let's get to it:

India's Maoist Naxalities -- profiting from prohibition. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Seattle City Attorney Wants to Accommodate Pot Tourists. Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes has warned the city council against passing rules that will make it harder for tourists to enjoy legal marijuana. "We need to recognize that tourists are coming to this state to sample wine, to sample Washington marijuana, to sample any of the attributes of this destination city; that we accommodate that somehow," he told KPLU FM.

Medical Marijuana

Washington State Leaning Toward Allowing Home Medical Marijuana Grows. Members of the state Liquor Control Board signaled Friday they will recommend medical marijuana patients continue to be allowed to grow their own medicine. The state Health and Revenue departments and the liquor board had earlier proposed outlawing home growing once I-502 takes effect, but aroused a storm of outrage from patients and their supporters. The board is expected to formally recommend allowing the grows next week.

Colorado Could Cut Patient Fees. State health officials want to reduce the fee paid by licensed medical marijuana patients. The Board of Health will hear a proposal next week to drop the annual fee from $35 to $15. That's because the fund that pays for the patient registry has a $13 million surplus, and the fee is not supposed to be about generating revenue, just paying for the costs of the program. There are nearly 113,000 registered patients in the state.

Second Hearing Held on Guam Medical Marijuana Bill. A pending medical marijuana bill on Guam got a second public hearing Thursday. The island's public health director said he could not support the bill because there was no funding for regulation, but patients and medical marijuana supporters testified in support of the bill. The measure, Senate Bill 215, remains alive, and cosponsor Sen. Tina Muna Barnes said she was working on amendments based on feedback from the public.

Drug Testing

Michigan Senate Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The Michigan Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 275, which would set up a pilot program to start subjecting some welfare recipients to drug testing. Recipient would be screened and those for whom there was "a reasonable suspicion" of drug use would have to submit to a drug test. A first failed drug test would result in a referral to treatment, a second would result in loss of benefits. The Republican-supported bill passed on a straight party line vote. Similar legislation has been approved in the House.

Sentencing

Report Reviews Changes in Federal Sentencing Since Booker. A new report, Legal Change and Sentencing Norms in Federal Court: An Examination of the Impact of the Booker, Gall, and Kimbrough Decisions, finds that not that much has changed. A series of Supreme Court decisions beginning with Booker held that federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, and expectations were that their impact would be significant. But "the findings suggest that sentencing policy changes at the national level -- including reforms mandated by these cases -- neither uniformly nor dramatically transformed sentencing practices. Factors in individual cases were the largest predictor of sentencing outcomes over all time periods. Sentencing behavior across districts changed incrementally over time but did not dramatically shift during major policy changes."

International

Indian Maoists (Again) Linked to Black Market Marijuana Trade. India's long-festering revolutionary Maoist movement, the Naxalites, is once again linked to the illicit trade in drugs. Officials in Odisha are complaining that they cannot eradicate the Naxalites until they "have control over the illegal cultivation of cannabis, which, according to intelligence sources, has become a major source of funding for the Maoists." Six of eight named districts where large-scale pot growing is "a well known fact" are known as "highly Naxal-infested districts." The state government is engaged in manual eradication, but is considering aerial spraying.

Costa Rica Public Opinion Not Ready for Marijuana Legalization. Costa Rica is not ready to legalize marijuana, according to a new public opinion poll. The survey from the School of Statistics at the University of Costa Rica found that only 15% favored legalization, while 50% were opposed. Medical marijuana fared better, with 53% in favor.

British Activist to Open "Cannabis Café" in Manchester. Notorious marijuana activist Colin Davies, who once handed a bouquet of flowers including marijuana to the queen, has announced plans to open a cannabis café in Manchester. Davis, who was once jailed for marijuana trafficking, said no pot would be sold at the café; instead it will be BYOB. Marijuana remains a Class B drug in Britain, so Davis should be looking for a police reaction.

The Crooked Cop and the Case of the Vanishing Guilty Plea [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigates@gmail.com. This is Part 8 in his continuing series of stories about prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption in the drug war.

In an unusual recent case, the US 4th Circuit Appeals Court overturned a conviction in a crack cocaine case despite the defendant having pleaded guilty. The case involving Baltimore drug dealer Cortez Leon Fisher was not overturned because the plea agreement was coerced or not voluntary -- the usual standard -- but because it was based on the lies of a corrupt police officer.

The case -- but not this tale -- began with an October 29, 2007 raid on Fisher's home executed by Baltimore police officer and DEA drug task force member Mark Lunsford. The search turned up crack cocaine and a loaded weapon. To avoid a decades-long stretch behind bars, Fisher copped a plea to one count of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Federal District Court Judge Frederick Motz then sentenced Fisher to 10 years in federal prison.

Fisher subsequently appealed to overturn his plea agreement after Lunsford was indicted on theft and perjury charges involving his use of bogus informants to falsely arrest and rip off drug dealers. In July 2010, the crooked cop got 20 months in federal prison for his crimes.

Lunsford's arrest and conviction uncovered a pattern of fabricating evidence to enrich police officers and selected informants, who received payments in cases in which they had not provided information. Reward money was fraudulently awarded to undeserving informants, and the proceeds were split between Lunsford and the snitches.

A search of Lunsford's home turned up jewelry belonging to alleged drug dealers and $46,000 in cash stolen from them. Federal prosecutors made no effort to return the stolen money to its rightful owners, but instead seized it for their own coffers.

But it gets worse. Lunsford also had a long history with Fisher and some of his family members, whom he had previously arrested on drug charges, some of which had been dismissed. In this light, Lunsford's pursuit of Fisher takes on the appearance of a personal vendetta.

When Fisher discovered that Lunsford had been indicted for perjury and theft in 2009, he wrote a pro se appeal to the judge who sentenced him, requesting that his guilty plea be vacated. But Judge Motz demurred.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/J._Frederick_Motz_District_Judge.jpg
Judge Fredrik Motz
"Unquestionably if the defendant had known of Lunsford's misconduct he would have filed a motion to suppress, and the motion may well have been successful," Motz wrote in denying the appeal. Nevertheless, "the defendant does not deny he was in possession of a firearm (as he admitted under oath during his Rule 11).Under these circumstances, I cannot find that a failure to allow defendant to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a 'miscarriage of justice.'"

Fisher appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. In his appeal, Fisher wrote that Lunsford "set me up and arrested me unlawfully." The informant in the case, Fisher said in the appeal, "never gave Lunsford information concerning drug activities at Fisher's home." Citing prior arrests of Fisher by Lunsford years ago, the appeal went on to say that after Lunsford arrested Fisher in 2007 in the current case, "the officer returned to my apartment later, stole a safe containing all my jewelry specifically numerous diamonds with blue and red design, including a diamond watch."

The 4th Circuit overturned the trial judge. The key question for the court was whether a police officer's misrepresentations of facts invalidated a guilty plea under the due process clause. The court noted that in order to invalidate a plea, the defendant must show that egregious impermissible conduct preceded the entry of the plea and that the misconduct influenced the defendant's decision to plead guilty.

While one member of the three-judge panel voted to dismiss Fisher's appeal, arguing that "natural reaction of extreme distaste to Lunsford's criminal act does not instantaneously transform Fisher's guilty plea into some form of due process violation that permits him now to withdraw his plea," his was a dissenting opinion.

Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd disagreed. Lunsford's lies influenced Fisher to cop a plea and his perjury "undermined the entire proceedings, thus rendering the defendant's pleas involuntary, and violated his due process rights," they wrote. "A plea based on law enforcement fraud is invalid even if the person is guilty," the court held in its ruling in the case.

Cortez Fisher is still behind bars, waiting to see if the US Attorney's Office in Maryland will dismiss his case. Meanwhile, Lunford, the dirty cop, has already been released from prison, as have other defendants caught up in Lunsford's perjury and bogus search warrants.

Fisher was scheduled to appear in court on October 25th to resolve the matter, but a court clerk told the Chronicle a new date has not been announced yet. Fisher's attorney, Marta Khan, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment about the matter.

"I was supposed to be home like the other people that they let go behind Lunsford's lies but I believe the feds will try to recharge me," Fisher told the Chronicle in a letter from prison."But I am ready for a new trial since I have all this new evidence."

Cop v. Drug Dealer

Baltimore police officer Mark Lunsford despised drug dealer Cortez Fisher. Their adversarial history stretches years to when Lunsford rode patrol near Baltimore's notorious Murphy Homes Project, where Fisher and his brother called "Midget" sold drugs, according to court documents.

Between 1993 and 2004, Lunsford's aggressive efforts to rid the crime-ridden community of drug dealers helped fellow narcotics officers make some of the cases against Fisher, including one particular case in 1999 when Fisher faced charges for armed marijuana trafficking.

In 2001, Fisher picked up another drug case, but was never convicted. Doggedly pursuing Fisher, Lunsford finally nailed him in 2004 on drug trafficking and a weapons charge filed in federal court. Fisher immediately copped a plea to serve 36 months in prison.

After finishing serving the 36 months, Fisher got nailed again on drug charges by Lunsford, this time costing him another 12 months behind bars. But Lunsford wasn't through yet.

In a search warrant affidavit dated October 29, 2007, Lunsford wrote that he received reliable information from a snitch that Fisher was selling drugs out of his house. Then, based on that false report, Lunsford claimed he personally saw Fisher sell drugs from his car. It was all a lie.

Court records filed in Fisher's case include a redacted FBI document dated October 23, 2009, where Lunsford admits that he fabricated source information in Fisher's and numerous other narcotics cases that sent citizens to prison. Lunsford told FBI agent that, fully aware of Fisher's involvement in the drug trade, he had lied when he said the informant he had named in the affidavit was the source of his information about Fisher.

Fisher may well have had a career as a drug dealer, but as the 4th Circuit noted, "even the guilty can suffer a miscarriage of justice."

Cortez Fisher remains imprisoned as he awaits word on what prosecutors will do. In the worst case, he will stay there until 2017. Meanwhile, the crooked cop whose perjurious information led to Fisher's arrest and subsequent plea bargain is a free man, not on parole, and not in the clutches of the criminal justice system.

For the guy from the mean streets of Baltimore, there is nothing left to do except to start over -- again.

"They took everything I had," he explained.

Baltimore, MD
United States

US Supreme Court Rejects Marijuana Reclassification Appeal

The US Supreme Court Monday declined to hear an appeal from medical marijuana advocacy groups who had challenged the DEA's decision to maintain marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the category reserved for the most dangerous substances.

The court denied in summary order a petition for a writ of certiorari from the groups, led by Americans for Safe Access, which had sought Supreme Court review of a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the DEA's ruling that a change in marijuana's classification required the Food and Drug Administration's recognition of acceptable medical uses for the drugs.

Advocates of rescheduling marijuana have been trying to do so for more than four decades, but have been thwarted by DEA delays and intransigence. This was the third formal rescheduling effort to be blocked by DEA decision making.

Schedule I drugs are deemed to have no acceptable medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include LSD, MDMA, and heroin. Despite the fact that there is an ever-increasing mountain of research detailing marijuana medicinal effects and despite the fact that 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, the DEA continues to insist that it cannot be down-scheduled.

Joe Elford, lead attorney on the case for Americans for Safe Access, told Law360 that the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari was in line with its reluctance to overturn lower court and administrative decisions on medical marijuana.

"It's disappointing, but not altogether surprising," he said.

A fourth effort to reclassify marijuana led by the governors of the medical marijuana states of Rhode Island and Washington was filed in 2011 and is still awaiting action.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Washington, DC
United States

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

ACLU-Illinois Sues Chicago Over Public Housing Drug Tests

The ACLU of Illinois Thursday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) over its policy requiring drug testing of residents in mixed-income developments. The ACLU charges in US District Court that the CHA's policy of suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Lawsuit plaintiff Robert Peery (aclu-il.org)
A positive drug test would lead to the eviction of the resident.

The CHA instituted the mixed-income residence drug testing program as part of its "Plan for Transformation," which tore down many of the city's crime-ridden high-rise housing developments and replaced them with mixed-income developments. Residents of the demolished low-income housing developments were given the option of moving into the new properties, but were required to take an initial drug test and be tested again every time the lease was renewed.

"Through the CHA's mixed-income program, public housing families reside in housing that is new, privately-owned and privately operated, alongside market-rate and affordable renters. One of the requirements of renters is that they follow property rules," CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks said in a statement Wednesday. "And if those rules happen to include drug testing, then public housing families -- like their market-rate and affordable renter neighbors -- must adhere to those rules."

The suit, filed on behalf of lead plaintiff Joseph Peery, is seeking a temporary injunction to block drug testing and a permanent ban on the practice. It also asks that the CHA be ordered to pay plaintiffs' legal fees.

"Mr. Peery repeatedly has taken and passed a suspicionless drug test," the lawsuit says. "Mr. Peery is a law-abiding person, and does not use illegal drugs. He strongly objects to the CHA's suspicionless drug testing. He finds it humiliating and invasive, and it makes him feel stigmatized as a presumptive criminal and drug user."

"I'm required to go into the business office, urinate in a jar, then hand it to an office staffer. Anyone working in or visiting the office can watch the process," Peery said at a Wednesday press conference. "It's embarrassing. You can only imagine how the grandmothers in the developments feel. We're being singled out in public housing. It's not fair."

"This misguided policy unfairly stigmatizes Mr. Peery and CHA residents like him," said Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel at the ACLU of Illinois. "It presumes he is guilty of illegal drug use, solely because he is a public housing resident, until he proves otherwise with a drug test."

"No one should have to suffer an invasion of their privacy -- like forced urinalysis -- in order to live in their own home," added ACLU staff attorney Karen Sheley.

Chicago, IL
United States

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

The Other Reason Bloomberg's Wrong About Stop and Frisk

The other piece of big news today was a federal judge finding New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" program unconstitutional. Judge Scheindlin used some pretty scathing language in her nearly-200 page opinion. Phil's article is here.

Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to appeal the ruling, claiming that the stop and frisk practice works and makes the city safer. But as I pointed out in a recent post, while there is research suggesting NYC police have done a lot of good innovating, so far at least the research has not borne out stop and frisk as being one of them.

That is to say, there are other things police do in New York, besides stop and frisk, that have produced a larger than average crime drop than other cities. And they also do stop and frisk, which research hasn't found to help with that.

One more note for now is that we have also written, and more extensively, about NYC as the world's marijuana arrest capital. This is different from the stop and frisk practice, but stop and frisk undoubtedly fuels it.

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